I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
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Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
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Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
Moviegoers aren't bored of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring yet. They spent another $16.2 million on Rings tickets, many of them for repeat viewings, keeping it in first place for a fourth consecutive weekend.
Also driving the box office were good expansions for A Beautiful Mind and The Royal Tenenbaums, a tasty Orange County opening and solid holdover business for Ocean's Eleven.
Key films -- those grossing at least $500,000 -- took in about $103.5 million, a solid total for the second weekend of the New Year. Comparisons to last year aren't valid since the comparable 2001 weekend was the four-day Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, which fell a week earlier than it does this year.
THE TOP TEN
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated epic The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring held on to first place for a fourth consecutive week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $16.15 million (-30%) at 3,381 theaters (theater count unchanged; $4,777 per theater). Its cume is approximately $228.3 million, heading for $300 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Jackson, Rings' ensemble cast is led by Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen.
Noting that Rings is heading for $300 million domestically, New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning, "It could do more. I think the (Academy) Awards are going to determine where this finally settles itself in. A lot of nominations will help and if we win anything it'll help. I think that will determine where this picture ultimately shows up. The Globes are going to help us, also. The Globes will give us a bump, if it happens."
Focusing on the film's performance abroad, Tuckerman pointed out, "This weekend we crossed over $500 million internationally all together. And we haven't opened Japan yet, which is going to be a huge market for us. The mysticism of this picture and the Japanese (are a perfect fit). Japan opens in a couple of weeks."
Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama A Beautiful Mind went wider in its fourth week, holding on to second place with a solid ESTIMATED $15.81 million (-5%) at 2,222 theaters (+369 theaters; $7,115 per theater). Its cume is approximately $59.0 million, heading for $100 million-plus in domestic theaters.
Directed by Ron Howard, the Brian Grazer production stars Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly.
Mind was honored Friday night as the best film of the year by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Howard tied for best director with Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann. Crowe was named best actor and Connelly was voted best supporting actress. In other key awards, the group named Sissy Spacek best actress for In the Bedroom and Ben Kingsley best supporting actor for Sexy Beast. Lord of the Rings won best composer (Howard Shore) and shared best song honors (Enya) with Vanilla Sky (Paul McCartney).
Mind's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in over 1,000 theaters this weekend.
"The studio continues to feel really optimistic about the film's performance," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "We're coming into the awards season, which began Friday night with the Broadcast Film Critics, and it's evident that Beautiful Mind continues to be the darling."
Mind is nominated for six Golden Globes, including best picture, actor, director, supporting actress, screenplay (Akiva Goldsman) and original score (James Horner). It is on most Hollywood handicappers' short lists as a likely major contender for prime Oscar nominations, including best picture.
Paramount and MTV Films' opening of the PG-13 rated youth appeal comedy Orange County finished third with a healthy ESTIMATED $15.1 million at 2,317 theaters ($6,527 per theater).
Directed by Jake Kasdan, it stars Colin Hanks and Jack Black.
"We're happy with it," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "This is on the high end of where we expected it to be."
Asked what he thought made the film work so well, Lewellen replied, "One was obviously the (marketing) campaign on the picture. I think the support from MTV and the fact that it was the only new picture coming into the marketplace was a big help, too."
Looking at the overall marketplace, Lewellen noted, "Everything that was in the market also help up well. I think it says that when these pictures have a little room to breathe, not only the new openings but the product that's in the marketplace can hold up very well."
Warner Bros. PG-13 rated casino heist dramatic comedy Ocean's Eleven fell one rung to fourth place in its fifth week, still holding strongly with an ESTIMATED $7.54 million (-32%) at 2,670 theaters (-100 theaters; $2,822 per theater). Its cume is approximately $162.5 million, heading for $180-200 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Ocean's extensive cast includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.
"We're thrilled with its success," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "This movie has incredible legs and the audience has just continued to support it. It's very strong especially on
Saturdays and Sundays."
Buena Vista/Touchstone's R rated drama The Royal Tenenbaums expanded again in its fifth week, holding on to fifth place with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $6.37 million (-25%) at 905 theaters (+154 theaters; $7,042 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.9 million.
Directed by Wes Anderson, it stars Danny Glover, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson.
Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies' G rated animated feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius fell two slots to sixth place in its fourth week with a slower ESTIMATED $5.5 million (-39%) at 2,810 theaters (-341 theaters; $1,957 per theater). Its cume is approximately $69.0 million, heading for about $85 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by John A. Davis, it was produced by Steve Oedekerk, Davis and Albie Hecht.
Paramount's R rated romantic thriller Vanilla Sky, which was sixth a week earlier, tied for seventh place in its fifth week with a quieter ESTIMATED $5.0 million (-30%) at 2,770 theaters (-72 theaters; $1,805 per theater). Its cume is approximately $88.4 million, heading for about $105 million in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, it stars Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor and Cameron Diaz.
Miramax's PG-13 rated romantic comedy Kate & Leopold, which was eighth a week earlier, tied for seventh place in its third week with an engaging ESTIMATED $5.0 million (-20%) at 2,467 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,026 per theater). Its cume is approximately $37.4 million.
Directed by James Mangold, it stars Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman.
USA Films' R rated whodunit Gosford Park, a likely Oscar contender, went wider in its third week, placing ninth with a jolly good ESTIMATED $3.79 million at 518 theaters (+387 theaters; $7,307 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.7 million.
Directed by Robert Altman and starring an extensive ensemble cast, it was written by Julian Fellowes and produced by Altman, Bob Balaban and David Levy.
"The business yesterday was outrageous," USA Films distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning. "It's just so good. It's breaking out!"
Looking ahead, Foley said, the film should "finish the week with probably another $1.4 million (bringing it to) about $8.1 million and go into next weekend with an additional 100-plus theaters. I'm already sitting on 100 more runs right now for next week. And being that it is the holiday weekend, I'll get up as high as I can. If I can get (up to) 800, I'd do that because I want to exploit the Golden Globes, the holiday weekend and moving out of the Golden Globes into the (next weekend) with as much broadening as I can.
"I know I can be aggressive now because the film has demonstrated its accessibility in the marketplace. It demonstrated it in Nashville, where yesterday we did about $5,000 (and in) Tallahassee with $3,000 and Baton Rouge with $3,000. The suburbs and the small regional markets are all cranking. So I feel confident that we can go up to the next level."
If all goes well, Foley explained, by Jan. 24 "this $6.7 million that's going to turn into $8.1 million (by Jan. 18) is going to be over $13 million. It will be the biggest grossing Altman film in recent history because we'll surpass Dr. T and the Women at that point. Dr. T did about $12.2 million. Obviously, with the momentum the film is carrying right now, we've got a long way to go. It's very exciting because at this stage of the game it's going to take out The Player, too, which was about $21 million."
Rounding out the Top Ten was Warner Bros.' mega-blockbuster Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, down one rung in its ninth week with a calm ESTIMATED $3.4 million (-44%) at 2,170 theaters (-511 theaters; $1,567 per theater). Its cume is approximately $305.0 million, heading for $320 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Chris Columbus, Harry stars Daniel Radcliffe in its title role.
This weekend also saw Universal's R rated fantasy thriller Brotherhood of the Wolf arrive to a biting ESTIMATED $0.47 million at 21 theaters
($22,523 per theater).
Directed by Christopher Gans, it stars Samuel Le Bihan.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Columbia Pictures and Initial Entertainment Group's R rated drama Ali added theaters in its third week with a calm ESTIMATED $3.2 million (-54%) at 2,521 theaters (+75 theaters; $1,259 per theater). Its cume is approximately $54.4 million, heading for $65 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Michael Mann, it stars Will Smith.
Miramax's R rated Oscar contender drama In the Bedroom widened in its eighth week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $3.1 million at 424 theaters (+217 theaters; $7,350 per theater. Its cume is approximately $8.1 million.
Directed by Todd Field, it stars Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei.
Miramax's R rated drama The Shipping News went wider in its third week with a choppy ESTIMATED $1.25 million at 266 theaters (+53 theaters; $4,700 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.0 million.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it stars Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Miramax Zoe Films' R rated French comedy Amelie expanded in its eleventh week with an encouraging ESTIMATED $1.1 million at 260 theaters (+33 theaters; $4,230 per theater. Its cume is approximately $19.3 million.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it stars Audrey Tautou.
Revolution Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' R rated drama Black Hawk Down continued to fly high in its third week of platform release via Columbia Pictures with an ESTIMATED $0.73 million at 16 theaters (+12 theaters; $45,313 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.5 million.
Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars Josh Hartnett.
"We are on 16 screens exclusively in New York and Los Angeles -- four in New York and 12 in Los Angeles," Sony Pictures Entertainment spokesman Steve Elzer said Sunday morning. "The business since we opened has been nearly at capacity. That will go on 3,000 screens (starting Friday, Jan. 18). The tracking on it is really phenomenal. It's been building since Day One. You really couldn't hope for a better strategy to be in place to knock this thing out of the park. It's finding its audience and I think next weekend it will be the story."
Warner Bros.' PG-13 World War II drama Charlotte Gray expanded quietly in its third week with an ESTIMATED $0.18 million at 52 theaters (+47 theaters; $3,423 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong, it stars Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup and Michael Gambon.
Universal's R rated drama Mulholland Drive expanded in its 14th week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.16 million at 96 theaters (+19 theaters; $1,630 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.0 million.
Written and directed by David Lynch, it stars Justin Theroux and Naomi Watts.
USA Films' R rated black-and-white drama The Man Who Wasn't There went wider in its eleventh week with a slow ESTIMATED $0.1 million at 132 theaters (+40 theaters; $765 per theater). Its cume is approximately $7.1 million.
Directed by Joel Coen and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, it stars Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.
United Artists' R rated Bosnian war drama No Man's Land, an MGM release, went wider in its sixth week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.035 million at 17 theaters (+4 theaters; $2,070 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.35 million.
Written and directed by Danis Tanovic, it won the best screenplay award in Cannes last May and was a hit at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Land is Bosnia's first official Oscar entry.
Universal's international division reported that it enjoyed strong for American Pie 2 in both Argentina and Mexico.
Pie 2 finished first in Argentina with a three day gross of $0.3 million on 56 screens, representing a market share of about 25 percent. Pie 2 was 40 percent bigger than the second ranking film Jeepers Creepers and was 32 percent bigger than the original American Pie was in Argentina. The studio noted that the picture's strong performance came during a period of economic and political upheaval in the country.
Pie 2 also opened in first place in Mexico with a hot two-day gross of $.82 million on 250 screens, representing about 25 percent of the marketplace. It was 38 percent bigger than the number two film Spy Game (released in Mexico by Nuvision) and was a whopping 245 percent bigger than the first American Pie. The sequel's two-day gross was 23 percent bigger than the entire first week for American Pie.
In Brazil Pie 2 continued to hold strong in its third week, placing fifth. Its cume after 23 days in Brazil is $2.6 million.
Pie 2's international cume to date is $131 million.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $103.53 million. Comparisons with last year are not valid because the comparable weekend last year was the four-day Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday weekend. This weekend's key film gross was down about 13.41 percent from $119.57 million for the previous weekend.
Last year, Paramount's opening week of Save the Last Dance was first with $27.53 million at 2,230 theaters ($12,344 per theater); and Fox's fourth week of Cast Away was second with $19.78 million at 3,048 theaters ($6,489 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $47.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $32.0 million.